The Laboratory Lover: Aine Moynagh

Aine Moynagh

Aine Moynagh, pictured here, with the ruins of Pompeii in the background, on a work trip with her pharmaceutical company, Rottapharm Madaus (Credit: Aine Moynagh)

Ah, the laboratory; the whiff of sulphur, the coloured fluids, the white coats and odd-looking instruments. Things to test, calibrate, analyse and measure. Aine Moynagh loved labs from the day she first walked into one.

She remembers the day: it was her first chemistry class in St Louis Secondary School in Monaghan. “We were growing crystals from copper sulphate,” recalls Aine. Straight away, the teenager realized that she wanted to work in a lab and not end up in an office staring at a computer all day.

There had been no ‘tradition’ of science in the family. Her father is a Hotel Manager, and her mum a housewife. However, two of her four siblings also went into technical fields, with one sister also a scientist, and a brother an ordnance surveyor. The other siblings work as a musician and a carpenter.

Her subject choices for the Leaving Certificate reflected her interest in science, with Aine choosing Chemistry, Biology, Home Economics and Maths (honours), as well as English and German. She did well enough to get offered a place in the general science course at Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT), where many of her friends from school also headed.

The interest in Chemistry and lab work that Aine developed at school, strengthened when she started at LYIT. “I loved sitting down and working out calculations,” says Aine. “There is something about the feeling of getting something working.” The practical aspect of chemistry appealed to her. “For me, I learn so much about looking at an instrument and how it works as opposed to seeing a diagram in a book and learning it that way. It was just so much easier to get into the lab and physically look at it.”

People go into science for all kinds of reasons. They might love animals, want to improve the environment, are fascinated by the stars in the skies, curious out how things work, or, like Aine, because they adore lab work.

A true laboratory lover is the type that when they are studying science at third-level they spend most of their time in the lab doing practical work, rather than in the library reading the recommended books, and scientific journals. This was exactly the type of student that Aine was, when at LYIT.

At LYIT, she started in first year, along with about 100 other students, in general science stream. This was very useful, says Aine, because it gave her time to figure out what area of science she wanted to work in. It became clear to her that she was interested in analytical science and chemistry.

She completed a certificate after two years of study, did a third year to get a diploma and then a fourth, which yielded an honours science degree. It meant she had three graduations at LYIT, Aine laughs, and three big days out. The last was in 2004, and then it was time to figure out her next move.


However, she was in no rush to get a ‘science job’. She had been working in Dunnes Stores in Monaghan since she was 16, a job that had helped sustain her all through her leaving certificate and third level studies, so she had an income, and was living at home. About nine months after graduation, she recalls, she applied for, and got, a job with Norbrook Laboratories, Newry.

The job was in QC, or quality control, which is an area in Ireland that provides plenty of jobs and career opportunities for science graduates.  Most science graduates these days end up in QC, said Aine, working in the pharma industry, testing tablets and products before they are released.

The Norbrook job was a step in the right direction for Aine, but all the travelling was tough: two hours commuting each day. There was also the issue of being paid in Sterling and living in the Republic. Wages are lower in the north, and the cost of living his higher in the south, Aine explained.

At Norbrook she quickly learned the difference between lab science as an undergraduate and in the workplace. “In college if something doesn’t work, then, ah it’s fine, you can write that into the conclusions, it didn’t work, but you can’t do that in work,” comments Aine. “You have to find out why it didn’t work and everything has to be documented – the documentation is very strictly controlled in quality control and it has to be,” she added.

After a few months, Aine was keen to try and get a job back in the south and in this, she was helped by recruitment company, CPL. They helped to place her in a company called Helsinn Birex Pharmaceuticals, Mulhuddart. She decided to take it, and moved away from Monaghan to live in Dublin.

The move to Dublin was difficult at first, but after a while, she settled down. Again, the job was involved in QC, working to ensure the safety of all Helsinn products by running through well-established safety protocols. It was good work experience, but, it was very similar to the work she had been doing with Norbrook, and she began to think of applying to do a PhD.


It was 2007, and the economy was still going well, so she thought it might be a good time to apply for a doctorate, and up her skills. She applied, and was accepted, to do a PhD at Dublin City University. Aine was delighted, but she found it difficult at first to re-adjust again to studying and college.

The PhD was far more difficult than working, Aine says, because to a large extent with a PhD ‘you are on your own’ and your days are un-structured. In Helsinn, the days were highly structured, the testing protocols were well established and it was very clear what was expected of you at all times.

Aine got a scholarship to do a PhD, which sustained her while living in Dublin, so finances were not a huge issue. The real challenge was to find  the resolve to work independently towards finding something totally new.

Her PhD was in the area of analytical chemistry, and specifically to try and find new ways to separate liquids with varying properties. After four years of hard work, the effort was successful and she produced a new way of separating liquids that formed the basis for a viable commercial product.

She finished her PhD in just under four years. At the end of it, Aine recalls, she had developed a new, improved technology to separate out liquids from each other based on differences in their position in the periodic table (and the atomic arrangements), the size of the molecule and other properties.

This technology was built into a ‘chromatography column’. So, what’s chromatography? “If you had a bottle of water and look on the side of it and it says it contains bi-carbonates and nitrates and a load of other things; it gives you a value as well. That’s all done by chromatography,” says Aine.

She finished the PhD in 2011.  She didn’t consider trying for an academic career as a realistic option as she saw post-doctoral students struggling to get funding, and even when they secured it, they often had to renew it every three months. She was looking for more structure and focus in her life.


Again helped by CPL, she quickly secured a job in the pharmaceutical industry with Rottapharm Madaus; one of Italy’s largest pharma companies. Like Helsinn, one of her previous companies, they are based in Dublin.

The company produces glucosamine which is used to maintain cartilage in joints. They also produce nutraceuticals, which are products that are not strictly drugs in the usual sense, but more natural dietary supplements.

She joined Rottapharm initially on a short-term contract towards the end of her PhD as her funding ran out as a QC analyst, like she had been in two previous companies. However, she found she really liked the work, and an opportunity came up to gain a promotion to work as a process analyst.

The process analyst job involved designing all the safety protocols that would be followed by the Rottapharm QC analysts. It is a more challenging role, said Aine, with more research time, and less structure. This all appeals to her, but it is also a responsible job with absolutely no room for error.

“At the minute, the pharmaceutical industry is going so well in Ireland – with other sectors suffering it is probably a good career to consider at the minute,” said Aine.  “I have never seen anyone struggling to get a QC job.”

This article was first published in the March/April 2014 issue of Science Spin

The Process Scientist: Brian Moran, Pfizer Grangecastle


Brian Moran holds a doctorate from DCU and now works as a process scientist with Pfizer at Grangecastle in Dublin (Credit: Brian Moran)

Whether it’s for heart disease, or depression, the drugs that sustain our health only reach the pharmacist’s shelves after a hugely complex and highly regulated manufacturing process. The making of a drug can involve input from hundreds if not thousands of people, and right at the heart of it all, is the process scientist.

There is a sense that the process scientists – who are the glue that holds together the entire drug manufacturing process – are the unsung heroes of Ireland’s, still thriving, pharmaceutical industry. The key role of process scientists, working as a technical services team within the plant, is to field questions on any aspect of the process, large or small, from any manufacturing section or quarter, right across the site. They are expected to take these questions and to find answers.

The questions might have to do with the raw materials coming into the plant, or to do with the labeling on the drug as it is about to leave the site. Whatever the stage of the process, or the nature of the question, it will be sent to the process scientists at technical services to deal with. It’s an important, challenging role.

Dr Brian Moran, is a process scientist working within the technical services team at the massive Pfizer Grange Castle Biotech plant in Dublin. The €1.8 plant is located on a 90-acre site and is one of the largest biotech plants in the world. The site as a whole is involved in the manufacture of the ‘next generation’ of EMBREL, a drug used to treat osteoporosis and arthritis, and Prevnar 13, a vaccine used against pneumococcal bacteria given to newborn children. Brian works on EMBREL.

The pharmaceutical industry must have a ‘pipeline’ of products constantly coming through. Otherwise, if a drug like EMBREL came ‘off patent’ without a new version being in place, then the ‘generic’ drug manufacturers would make a cheaper version of EMBREL and sell it using its chemical, not its brand name.

In this scenario, Pfizer, the company that produced EMBREL, would lose out.

The real importance, however, of the job of the process engineer is to ensure the integrity of the production process, in order to make safe, and effective drugs – and that applies to every batch of drugs that leaves the plant, without exception. The secondary role is to save money, by providing efficiencies in the production process, and to maximize the return the company makes from its drug pipeline.


Brian, who is from Dungarvan, was inspired to pursue a career in science by his  chemistry teacher at St Augustine’s College, Oliver Broderick. “He was very much ‘old school’, but he knew how to connect with the students,” said Brian about his former teacher. “He knew how to make the subject enjoyable. You would get homework, but it was a pleasure to do the homework – almost. It was very much related to real life. He had a real passion for the subject, for the sciences. It certainly did rub off on the majority of the sudents,” recalled Brian.

Such was his influence, said Brian, that all of his siblings went into the general, scientific, medical or healthcare fields. “I have a brother and a sister that are both pharmacists and my little sister is an occupational therapist,” said Brian’. “The one abiding link there is that we all had the same chemistry teacher.”

After his Leaving Certificate in 2000, Brian went to DCU where he signed up for a four year course in Pure and Applied Chemistry (in his first year the course changed its name to Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science). In the summer following his 3rd year at DCU Brian got the opportunity to work in research in the US as part of a r collaboration between DCU and the University of Kansas.

This experience whetted his appetite for further research after his degree, and he moved on to do a PhD in DCU in medicinal chemistry.  The doctorate took three and a half years to complete; then it was on to a post-doc. At this point, however, he switched his chosen field to environmental and analytical chemistry. At the same time, he began questioning the logic of trying to secure an academic job.

“Academia is a very difficult area to break in to,” explained Brian. “To make a success of it you have to be young, free and single, to get the international experience, and build up your contacts. Then the opportunities are very limited. I had a young family and I was looking for something more secure. There was more job security and opportunity by getting into the pharma side of things.”

After two and a half years of post-doctoral work, Brian applied for, and secured a job working in technical services at the Elanco plant in Sligo (Elanco is the veterinary wing of Eli Lilly).  He had started to build a house in Dundalk, where is wife is from, and had a small daughter. His stayed in Sligo during the working week and came home to his family at the weekend. When a second child came along a few months ago, a boy, there was a strong motivation to get a job ‘back on the east coast’. The job at Pfizer is within commuting distance of Dundalk.

The great thing about working in the pharmaceutical sector, he says, is that it had – at least until a few job loss announcements recently – been largely untouched by the economic crash. Things are still going well in Irish pharma, but the emphasis, he said, is changing in the industry with a general move away from the manufacture of the bulk products – the tablets and chemicals – into synthesizing medicines using biotechnology. This is exactly what is being done at Grange Castle, he said, where products are being grown up using cell lines, and the whole process is more advanced than before.

“Currently I’m looking at all the starting raw materials coming in, making sure that they are all sufficiently pure, doing any testing that needs to be done to make sure that they are all fine, fit for purpose for the product. We are working side by side with the engineers who are looking at the ‘hardware’ side of it.”

The analogy he used was to think of the process at Grange Castle in terms of it being like building a PC.  Under this analogy the engineers are looking at the hardware – the computer monitor, the keyboard, the mouse etcetera– while the technical services department (populated by scientists like Brian) looks at what software needs to be put in, what kind of anti-virus programme and what filters.

Brian loves the interaction across the entire Grange Castle site that his job provides. He is also at ease with the responsibility that comes with the position. On the downside, there is a lot of paperwork. He has had to ‘hang up his white coat’ and spends a huge proportion of his work time in front of a PC writing up reports, writing assessments and signing off on things, rather than at the bench.

He would recommend his job to anyone considering a career in science. “In terms of technical services,” said Brian, “you can get in at the boom level and you can go right up to the very top of the whole manufacturing structure. There is always great scope for moving up the line, there are great opportunities.”

This article was first published in the January-February 2014 edition of Science Spin

As the amazing Young Scientist Show hits 50, Tony Scott recalls its humble origins


Every January, the success of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition means that science – for one week at least – is guaranteed the nation’s attention. Photo Credit (BTYSTE)

This year the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition celebrates its 50th year. Dr Tony Scott, retired UCD Physicist, and co-founder, along with Fr Tom Burke (deceased) has many cherished memories of the show down the decades.

“The first one was held in January 1965,” recalled Tony. “We had about 220 projects – with Aer Lingus’s support we booked the round room of the Mansion House. Then based on the projects we picked judges and just told them to judge. The projects were divided into boys and girls and they were all individuals.”

It’s a long time ago. Some of the stories making news in January ’65 were the death of Winston Churchill; the first meeting (in 43 years) of an Irish Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, with a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill; and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson for a second term as the President of the US.


The idea for the Show followed a 1963 visit to New Mexico by Tony with Fr Burke – his mathematics teacher at Terenure College and by now his colleague in the UCD department of Physics. ‘Fr Tom’, as Tony called him, had gone out to the US first, and reported back to Tony on something interesting he saw there.

The two UCD researchers had been invited to visit the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology, based in Socorro, a small-ish town in the Rio Grande Valley, 74 miles south of Albuquerque. The Americans wanted the Irish to build a replica of something that was called ‘the Nolan Photoelectric Nucleus Counter’.

This device had been named after its inventor, Professor Patrick Nolan – the  Chair of the UCD Geophysics Department up until his 1964 retirement. It was, and is, the standard instrument used around the world to measure condensation nuclei – the tiny particles upon which vapour condenses during cloud formation.

Fr Tom went out to New Mexico first, Tony recalls jokingly, because “I had more exam papers to correct than he had”. Before long, Fr Tom was in touch with Tony about something that he had seen that engaged his keen interest. “He got back to me and said there is a young man out here who is building a rocket,” said Tony. “It will go up one mile and he wants to demonstrate it. The morning after I arrived we went to the schoolyard of the local primary school in Socorro.”

At the school, the Irish scientists met a young man called Gary, recalls Tony, who was setting up a rocket. They started chatting, and he said that he planned to enter his rocket project into a science fair that was being held in Albuquerque. Fr Tom stayed on to attend the fair. He arrived back at UCD in September 1963, talked to Tony and asked: “Could we do it here in Ireland?” It was agreed that, yes, it could be done, but that a sponsor was needed. Tony had a contact in Aer Lingus, and they presented the idea to the General Manager JF Dempsey. “He took to it immediately,” said Tony. Thus began a fruitful 32-year sponsorship.

“For the first 10 years or so until 1975 we never had group projects,” said Tony. “It was all individual. Fr Tom wanted individuals because I think that’s what he saw in Albuquerque.” Tony, however, put the case for group projects. “I said Tom, we are doing research together, we are publishing together, therefore, aren’t WE a group?” Tony’s point was taken and from 1976 onwards group projects were taken. One other big development in the 1970s came in 1973 when projects from Northern Ireland were first accepted. Up to, it was Republic only.

The Show was growing – slowly – but it was still felt that it needed the official ‘imprimatur’ of a big scientific name to back it. The biggest name of all in Irish science in the 1970s was Ernest Walton, TCD’s legendary atom splitter, and Nobel laureate. Walton, who was in the twilight of his career, supported the show by just being there. “He was an incredibly shy man,” recalls Tony. “He wouldn’t push himself forward as a Nobel Prize winner, he was a modest man. He would drift in, walk around and people would say – look, he split the atom!”

In the 1980s, the Show hit a milestone when it surpassed 400 entries, which at the time was the limit that the RDS could comfortably accommodate. This meant that, for the first time, it would be necessary to ‘screen’ entries for quality. Tony, along with Professor Sean Corish, Head of the Chemistry Department at TCD, acted as the first screening judges. The need for screening has increased over the years, as the number of entries has increased. These days, the RDS can manage to accommodate 550 projects, but, this year, there were some 2,000 entrants.


The Show has become so successful that only about one-quarter of the entrants now make it into the hall. This is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it means that all the projects on exhibition are of high quality, but those that don’t make it – an increasing number – are left disappointed. Of course, everyone could be accommodated in a larger venue, but, Tony believes, the Show gains a lot by its association with the RDS. “The venue is one of the best in the country, in terms of hotels and transport available,” said Tony. Furthermore, he said, BT are now offering E200 bursaries for exhibitors that live more than 75km from Dublin. This pays for the train up and down and for Bed and Breakfast.

Aer Lingus ended its sponsorship of the Show in 1997 because they wanted to put their money into something that better reflected the global reach of the airline. For the first time in decades, Tony and Fr Tom had to go looking for a new sponsor. Aer Lingus had been brilliant, said Tony, and they provided flights home from Rome for Fr Tom, when needed, and cabin crew to ‘work the floor’.

In 1998, Esat Telecom came in as a new sponsor; in 1999 it was Esat Fusion, and then in 2000 BT  came onboard. “BT bring 150 staff, out of 800 in Ireland, so it’s not just the money – it’s the money and the infrastructure of the people that’s crucial. The BT ‘red coats’ are there to help the students and public during the day, and the young people at nighttime when they have discos. The Show is one of biggest that BT’s is involved with – impressive considering BT was the official communications partner at the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.


The way that projects are judged has changed over the years. In the beginning the judging process was far less organized, but the overall winners were still outstanding. These days the judges mark projects under specific headings including originality, scientific content, and communication ability. These days some projects are so sophisticated that outside experts are called in to judge.

However, Tony, despite the growing complexity of some projects, said he always uses the same basic approach when judging projects. “I sit down with them, – that’s very important – I’m not towering over them,” said Tony. “I always ask the same three questions: What did you set out to do? How did you do it? What did you find? I may interrupt you from time to time – tell me your stories!”

The quality of the winners has remained consistently very high. This can be judged by the success of winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) at equivalent European and international young scientist competitions. “If you take the last 24 years, we have got a first in Europe on 15 occasions,” said Tony. That’s impressive even given that there are three winners in Europe each year, in different categories. Ireland also does well, said Tony, at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) each year, which involves entrants from all the US states, and 49 countries, including the giants – Russia and China.

This success of BTYSTE has attracted international attention, and the UK has imitated it with a similar – though not identical – show called ‘The Big Bang – UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair’. In an interesting recent development there is now a Tanzania version of the Show, and, if that works, there is the possibility that it could be expanded into other African nations, said Tony.

The Tanzania connection grew out of the work of the Combat Disease of Poverty Consortium based at NUI Maynooth. This led representatives of the Tanzanian government came to have a look at the Show and they liked what they saw. They came to the Board of the BTYSTE and asked for help setting something similar up. The Board gave the Africans everything, materials, forms, judging materials, and the Irish government, through Irish Aid, also came in behind the venture.

The first YS Tanzania show was held in October 2012 and the winners were three girls, Monica Shirima, Nengai Moses and Aisha Nduka from Kibosho Girls Secondary School, situated in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. The girls and their teacher visited the 2013 BTYSTE in Dublin. They got a warm welcome – and that helped them adjust from temperatures in the 30s Celsius to below 10C values.

The January 2014 show – the 50th – will be visited by the vast majority of previous winners stretching back to the first winner John Monaghan, the biotech entrepreneur now living in California, and several will this year act as judges. Some past winners remain prominent on the Irish scientific landscape. Professor Luke Drury (1969) is the Director of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies; Professor Ronan McNulty (1985), is a leading particle physicist based at UCD; and Patrick Collison (2005) who became a millionaire, aged 19, when, along with his brother he sold his software company, Auctomatic for E3 million.

As the show reaches its half century milestone Tony is glad that it is doing so well, with an excellent sponsor in BT and numbers of project applications growing each year. It has been a remarkable success story, and that success has meant that Irish science, for one week at least, always gets the nation’s attention.

Tony’s one regret is that Fr Tom is not around to celebrate the 50th. However, in Fr Tom’s memory, a special prize, the Fr Tom Bursary, has been established to recognise the best communicator in an individual project. This is in recognition of the fact that Fr Tom always judged individual students, rather than groups.

As for the future of the Show? Tony says that another exciting development that has proved successful is the addition in recent years of primary school projects. This has grown and grown and last year 120 schools took part. Meanwhile, he believes that despite all the success and the growth that not too much should be done to alter the special chemistry that makes the show at the RDS so popular.

There are 550 entrants each year, which is the optimum number, considering the space constraints and the time demands on the judges (which are all voluntary). If the show got any bigger, or was to be held at a venue outside of the RDS, it might “suffer” said Tony. “It works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This article was first published in the Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Science Spin

The Public Defender: Janette Carroll Forest Laboratories, Dublin

Janette Carroll

Janette Carroll, pictured here, is a quality control scientist working in Dublin (Credit: Janette Carroll)

Some five million prescriptions are written every year in Ireland for mental illnesses alone. Each and every tablet must have a precise balance of ingredients to ensure that it works properly in the body and is safe to use. The people that ensure this happens and act as the consumer’s last line of defense are quality control scientists, like Janette Carroll, a contract scientist at Forest Laboratories in Dublin.

Janette, who hails from Galway, was always curious as a child, and was naturally drawn towards science. As a teenager, she began to avidly read crime fiction, and the works of authors such as Kathy Reichs, a former forensic anthropologist in the US. She loved Reichs’s novels, which focus on the use of science to solve crime, and enjoyed trying to solve the crime ahead of the narrative.


Some of the other writers that Janette likes to read including Patricia Cornwell (she has read all of her books), Karin Slaughter and Dick Francis. Some of the girls she talks to, she says, question why she wants to read about all of this terrible stuff, but for Janette it is all about curiousity. These authors, she says, know their audience well, and they often given out information on specific tests being done, or chemicals used, which help those with a keen eye – like Janette – to solve the crimes.

Janette’s other great interest in life is sport. She has always been interested in sport, and good at it. She used to horse ride all the time, and compete in events, though she doesn’t compete these days. She also plays basketball twice per week, and acts as a referee at the weekend. When she was younger she played rugby, and these days she plays a lot of softball. She has played for the Irish academy team in the world softball series and hopes to graduate onto the senior Irish team soon.

Neither of Janette’s parents worked in science. Her mother is still a teacher for children with physical and learning disabilities, while her father is a mechanic that builds customised cars for people with disabilities, or people that have suffered a serious car accident and, perhaps, lost several limbs. Janette grew up with her father’s garage beside the house, and often helped him with his work. People sought him out after they had an accident and he adapted vehicles to suit each person. Janette did learn from watching her father, but didn’t want to follow his career path. “I have a small idea of how to service my own car,” says Janette, “but I’d prefer to pay someone to do it for me.”

Janette doesn’t remember any particular teacher that piqued her interest in science. That interest was simply there, and from a young age. Her parents recognised this and one year Santa brought Janette a microscope for Christmas. She loved it. “I didn’t read the instructions,” recalled Janette. “I just shoved things under it. You could read the instructions, but that ruins the fun of just being curious.”

Thus, when a career guidance teacher at St Enda’s College in Salthill told Janette about a new course in Pharmaceutical and Forensic Science that had started at Limerick Institute of Technology, she was captivated. However, there was still a career choice for Janette to make, as she was also very interested in studying veterinary science, and had a strong interest in horses and horse riding.

She decided to do the science course. The course was very interesting, but she soon realised that the opportunities available in the area of forensic science – one part of the course – were far less than in the other part, which focussed on the skills required to work in the pharmaceutical industry. After graduation, in 2007, Janette got a job with Wyeth Laboratories. This was a great job, she recalls, and she was earning a lot more than most graduates, straight out of college, could hope to earn.


The job at Wyeth was as a quality control (QC) analyst. Many of Janette’s college classmates also ended up working in QC with one now employed at Roche and another with Merck, Sharpe and Dohme. The QC job is a responsible one, Janette says, which required good planning skills as well as scientific ability and rigorous attention to detail. Janette has found it challenging and rewarding.

After a while at Wyeth, Janette decided to go travelling, and picked up a job at the Charles River Laboratory in Scotland. This was a great job, she recalls, which involved working on the early stages of drug development, rather than on the testing of a drug that had already been designed. Although she doesn’t particularly like research, prefering to get stuck in, in the laboratory, using equipment and re-agents, she loved the intellectual challenge of early design and drug testing.

One of the great things about science, and working in QC, says Janette, is that there are plenty of jobs available, and this means it is always possible to travel and pick up contract work. That’s what she did after Scotland, and this time her destination was Australia. There she spent four months working on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef, which involved spending up to six hours underwater every day. Janette didn’t mind this, in fact she loved it, as scuba diving is one of her big interests.

The idea of diving into the depths off a boat into waters populated by all manner of fish and predators would be a terrifying prospect for some, but not Janette. “It is not scary really,” says Janette. “I am confident enough that I’d be able to handle myself and someone else in a rescue situation (underwater). It won’t ever be scary for me,” she says, while adding “sometimes in the dark in the night, with a torch, and with the sharks around you, your heart skips a beat.”

After such adventures ‘down under’ it is perhaps inevitable that Janette regards life in Ireland, by way of comparison, as “a little boring” yet “it’s home”. She spent two and a half years away and was ready to return home. However, even though she arrived back in the middle of the worst economic crash in Irish history, she still had no problem picking up work straight away. The degree she took and the experience she has gained as a QC analyst means she can work almost anywhere.


When Janette came home, she got a job as an analyst with Forest Laboratories, a multi-national pharmaceutical company with two plants in Ireland. The plants at Coolock and Baldoyle in Dublin make drugs to combat psychosis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s exclusively for the US market. The Baldoyle plant produces Sudocream, which every parent will be familiar with, and recently a new drug gained approval for the US that will be produced in Dublin; a big boost for the Irish plant.

There are a couple of main stages of getting a drug through a quality control laboratory. There are the raw materials, which include active ingredients – the medicines – and the other ingredients. The drugs must be what they say they are, and there must be a consistent quality in all tablets produced. The QC work is very important, says Janette, as it protects the public from any harm. It requires a lot of discipline and organisation, but she admits that aspects of the job are boring and repetitive. That said, she would still highly recommend a career in science and QC for anyone considering it.

“It’s still amazing (a career in science) and easy to get a job,” says Janette. “The money is really good and there is plenty of opportunity to travel. Contract work is easy to pick up if you want to move about a bit when you are younger without having to take up permanent jobs, or set up a pension when you are 22 and just coming out of college,” she says, while adding that security and long term jobs are also there for those that want to work and settle down straight from graduation.

This article was first published in the November 2013 edition of Science Spin 

The Safety Engineer: Emmet Tobin, Millipore Ireland, Cork

Emmet Tobin

Emmet Tobin, engineer with Millipore Ireland, pictured here enjoying some time off with his dog Skipper on Bunmahon Beach Co Waterford (Credit: Emmet Tobin)

Pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices help millions of people worldwide to live longer, and better lives. It is crucial, however, that existing products remain safe for consumers, despite ongoing changes in the materials or equipment used to produce them. It is also vital that everything possible has been done to ensure the safety of new medical devices and drugs. The front-line in the fight to ensure all these products are safe, time after time, are validation engineers like Emmet Tobin, based at Millipore Ireland, in Cork.

 The size of the medical device market is staggering, with approximately 160,000 hip and knee joints replaced with implanted devices each year in England and Wales alone. The prescription drug market too is massive too, with an estimated one sixth of the UK adult population, or just under 8 million people, taking anti-depressant drugs on a regular basis. Given these figures, from just one country, our nearest neighbour, it is remarkable that industry has managed to produce medical products so safely for so long.

 That they have done so is due in large part to the work of engineers like Emmet that work feverishly to ensure that processes and manufacturing standards comply with those of the world’s leading regulatory agencies, such as the US Federal Drug Administration or the European Medicines Agency. We all take the safety of medical products for granted, and there is outrage when safety has been breached. This is the context in which Emmet works. His work is difficult – success is expected, and failure is unthinkable.


Waterford native Emmet had an uneventful primary school education before attending Mount Sion where he started to show an aptitude for technical subjects. He studied engineering and physics for his leaving certificate and had an ambition to go into teaching. However, the points for teaching training courses were high, Emmet recalls, so he decided to apply for a manufacturing technology course in Waterford Institute of Technology. He was accepted for that, and got this Higher Certificate in 2001. However, rather than seek work immediately he decided that he would apply for another third-level course in Medical Engineering and Medical Bioengineering at the University of Bradford in the UK.

The interest in medicine and biology had been stimulated by his volunteering work with the Order of Malta in his youth. He was trained as an early responder to medical emergencies and attended public events such as gymkanas, horse shows and rallies in that capacity. He did his research and discovered that the University of Bradford had a long history of achievement in the bioengineering field. The lecturers were well known, and some had been at the university since the start of hip and knee replacement surgery in the UK several decades before. He decided this course was for him, and he made the brave decision to move to England to further his education. Emmet had a friend in Bradford, but he recalls that the initially six months were difficult as he tried to settle in, and make some friends. The course lived up to expectations: the lecturers were passionate and knowledgeable, and the they covered key areas such as biomechanics, biodynamics, tissue engineering, medical ethics, and electronics.

There was an opportunity mid-way through his time at Bradford to come back to Ireland for a summer and work at the National Centre for Biomedical and Engineering Science at Galway. This helped him learn more about biology, and how to grow cells in the laboratory. In his final year at Bradford he worked on a tissue engineering project focused on growing cells to replace damaged or burned skin tissue. By the time he graduated, he was ideally placed to find work in the pharmaceutical or drug device industry.


After graduating in 2005, he returned to Waterford where he got his first job working with the manufacuring division of Teva Pharmaceuticals in Ireland. This operation was involved in the manufacturing of tablets and inhalers. Emmet worked there as a research and development engineer for two years. However, he started to become restless after a few years, as he was still living at home with his parents, and was keen to strike out on his own. Antoher factor in his getting itchy feet was that he felt that the wheels of the pharmaceutical industry turned very slowly, and it took a long time to get things done. He was getting bored. Then in 2007 his mother passed away, and he decided he would give up his secure, permanent job and go travelling the world. His career was effectively put on pause, and leaving his job was something of a risk, but he was betting that he would be still well placed to get job when he returned to Ireland. The travelling brought him to South Korea where he taught English as a foreign language. It was hard work, but he gained very valuable experience working in a an Asian country.

Emmet returned to Ireland in 2008, and suddenly the country was in the middle of a huge economic crisis. He found himself out of work for several months, but finally got a new job in his native Waterford with the giant contact lens manufacturer Bausch and Lomb. The fact that he had been educated in the UK, and had travelled and experienced life abroad helped to ‘put some colour on his CV’ and make it stand out from the crowd, Emmet said. At Bausch he had the responsible job of ensuring the safety of new products coming onto the market and meeting the stringent regulatory requirements of the US Federal Drug Administration and the European Medicines Board. He became familiar with what it takes to deliver safe and effective product onto the market time after time. This was a responsible and important position.

His first job in Ireland outside of Cork came next with Stryker Orthopaedics at Carrigtwohill. The products here were a long way removed from disposable contact lens. Instead they produced hip and knee implants and other medical devices that were designed to last for 15 to 20 years or more inside the body. Again he worked as a validation engineering making sure that new Stryker products, or the industrial processes in place to develop these products complied with safety regulations. It was a hard-driving culture at Stryker, with people regularly working long hours, and pressure to get the job done. It was differnt to other working environments he had been in, but it was another new, valuable experience.

Emmet spends a good deal of his time on the computer writing safety protocols, or plans for how the safety of products and processes can be continually ensured. He also runs tests of various kinds, liases with people on-site and off -site as required. These people include other engineers, operators, chemists and vendors, for example. Millipore produces a lot of differnt products, so Emmet is kept extremely busy with ensuring the safety of existing products and processes, as well as new products. He has been ‘ up the walls’ with work at Millipore since his arrival there, and has no time to get bored. The job is challenging and rewarding, with a great deal of variety, and that’s the way he likes to have things.


In terms of advising the current crop of school leavers, Emmet says that engineering is an excellent choice for those that are technically minded. Engineering offers many options to change career path and people can end up doing things that they like that they had never envisioned starting out. For example, Emmet says that he would never have thought that he would have ended up being involved with making hip implants when he started his course at WIT. Engineering offers multiple career choices, and unlike some other careers, people don’t tend to easily get ‘boxed in’ career wise. It also offers the opportunity to travel, gain experience, and work with many different companies. The only downside, he offers is that the work can be very responsible and serious and there can be a lot of pressure at times to get the job done.

There is also the fact. that bio-engineers are highly sought after in Ireland. Emmet says that at any time he has a choice of potential jobs available to him, given his specialised education and the high level of his work experience. If I updated my CV on Monster one day I might get 20 calls about jobs the next day, said Emmet. These days in Ireland, he acknowledges that this is a very privileged position to be in.

This article was first published in Science Spin, September 2013 Issue

The Gene Hunter: Dr Aoife McLysaght, TCD

TEDx Dublin 2012

Aoife McLysaght speakingat the TEDx event in Dublin in 2012 [Credit: Science Gallery]

In World War 11 the RAF hired a statistician called Abraham Wald to analyse planes returning from air combat. Metal was scarce, and the idea was to only re-inforce the most vulnerable parts of the planes. The parts of returning aircraft that made it home full of bullets must be the toughest parts, Wald reasoned, and so a decision was made not to re-inforce these areas, but to use the scarce metal to strenghten the other parts of the aircraft.

Dr Aoife McLysaght, geneticist at TCD, understands Wald’s logic and applies it to her own gene hunting efforts. Dr McLysaght  is identifying genes that are most sensitive to being hit with ‘bullets’ – which in genetic terms means being hit with random gene mutations. This is important because it is known that in certain sensitive genes – right across all living species – having too many copies of a particular gene, or too few, can result in a disease.


Dubliner, Aoife, attended her local national school before attending St Andrew’s College, on Booterstown Avenue. She recalled that she although there wasn’t too much science taught in primary school, she was very interested and engaged by such science as was on offer. In particular, Aoife remembers presenting a science project with her best friend in sixth class, which involved explaining aspects of the weather to other pupils and teachers.

I had fun little demonstrations, to do with the power of wind and air,” Aoife recalled. “We had a plastic bag with a book on top of it. We got the opening of the bag and blew into it and showed that it would lift the book. We also had a glass milk bottle, with a baloon on top that was not inflated. We placed the bottle into a jug of really hot water, and the air would expand and inflate the baloon. I remember have loads of fun doing that,” she said.

Her interest in science was strongly established by the time she attended St Andrews. She remembers that she was always engaged with science, and actively listened to the teachers, so that information went in, making life much easier when it came to passing the exams. When the leaving certificate rolled around Aoife chose to do Biology and Chemistry, but not Physics. She believes that was a mistake in hindsight as she always enjoyed physics.

Instead she chose to study geography, because it was regarded as a science subject by the universities. This was a mistake, she says now, because while she enjoyed physical geography – such as explanations of why earthquakes occur – she did not at all like social geography, which for her involved too much memorising of lots of very dull information. Her experience has told her in the years since, that people will succeed at what they enjoy. That was proven when her geography result proved her worst leaving certificate result.

At St. Andrews, she was inspired by the efforts of a great teacher, Dr Nick Frewin, a PhD holder, who taught her science and biology. “He was just really good,” recalled Aoife. “He spent a lot of time clearly explaining things, had well planned lessons, and there was a lot in it beyond the course. He was well liked enough for people to write him letters when he was retiring. When I did genetics, there was a class of 12 people, and three of those have been his [Dr Frewin] students, and [in] the year behind me we had another one,” said Aoife.

The role of the teacher is crucial, says Aoife, and she cited the example of the many people that say they can’t do maths. “The number of people who think they can’t do maths is too high – there are a lot of people that have been put off maths. They stop trying because they think they can’t do maths. The students underestimate their own abilities. Students should allowed have a bit of fun with maths. Games and puzzles for example,” said Aoife.

Recently, Aoife recieved a prestigious European Research Council grant – which are only given to the top tier of scientists in Europe – to try and identify disease causing genes. The aim she said is identify those genes that are vulnerable to changes in quantity. This might involve a reduction in the copies of genes, or too many copies. There is a certain amount of variation in the number of copies of genes between people, and it’s common. However, in some people in certain genes variations in gene quantities increase disease vulnerability.

This is an evolutionary approach to genetics, explained Aoife. The goal is to see which genes have tolerated changes in amount – high or low – over evolutionary time and which have not. The identification of those genes that have proven intolerant to change over evolution can provide a key to which genes are linked to disease today, the reasoning goes. “There is variation in [[gene] copies, because mutations happen,” explained Aoife. “DNA is a chemical that copies itself in cell division, and this is an easy mistake that happens a lot.”

Once the sensitive genes that have been linked to disease have been clearly identified, then it becomes possible to develop better and more precise ways to diagnose disease. Following on from that, if there are improved methods to diagnose disease at an earlier stage, then it should become possible for scientists to develop better disease treatments and therapies.


Aoife is also one of the best scientist-communicators in Ireland, and is regularly invited to speak in schools and at public lectures about her work and its implications for society. She believes that it is important that some scientists communicate with the public, but she also acknowledges that although she enjoys this activity, not every scientist will feel the same.

It is important that some of us do it, and there is support for that. I mean that it is recognised as a valid part of the job. A valid activity, that it is respected. Sometimes people might think it is a trivial activity. I don’t think that. I see science as part of our culture, we should all have access to that. A lot of people love music, but don’t have the intention of being a musician. It’s the same with science – people should have access to it,” she said.

For Aoife, science is about the ability to learn, to deduce, to understand something, even when it is not visible to the naked eye. It involves being able to think long-term, beyond our own lives. Science is exciting, interesting, dynamic, but it is a big mistake to try and push it onto people. It is also a mistake, she believes, for the Irish government, or any government to get too closely involved in deciding how funding for science should be spent. It would be better to fund the best people than to fund certain areas, she said.

She has some advice for young people that might be considering science as a career. “When I was young, I didn’t know you could be a scientist, I didn’t know any scientists. I didn’t know what I would end up being, if I studied science. My mum said to me, do what you enjoy the the job will follow. It’s very optimistic, but I kind of subscribe to that,” she said.

This article was first published in Science Spin, May-June 2013 issue.

A cycle helmet with built-in sensors and indicators

Cycling in Dublin city is a dangerous business due to large volumes of traffic, unsafe or totally absent cycle lanes, and an inability of drivers to ready cyclists’ intentions.

Rory Hughes, a student at Gonzaga College, Ranelagh, can’t do much about the traffic or cycle lanes, but he has found a way to help drivers better anticipate cyclists’ behaviour on the road by inventing a cycling helmet with built-in indicators and a brake light.

Accidents can result when drivers misread cyclists’ hand signals, or miss such hand signals entirely due to a blind spot, inattention, or because of poor visibility. A cyclist turning right, for example, will be in trouble if a driver doesn’t spot a hand signal.

Enter Rory’s helmet, for which he deservedly won the Junior Technology Individual Award at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, back in January.

His idea is simple, yet ingenious. A cycle helmet that signals to following cars when a cyclist wishes to turn left or right, as well as having a brake light to show slowing or stopping.


Rory Hughes of Gonzaga College, pictured here wearing his award-winning cycle helmet with built in sensors and indicators

When a cyclist wishes to turn left, all he has to do is lean his head to the left, and the indicator for left comes on, while a buzzer lets the cyclist know that the indicator has actually come on. The same applies in reverse for a right turn.

This job is accomplished by an arrangement of built-in sensors, and wires, which Rory built himself, sometimes working at school, and other times at home.

When the cyclist has gone all the way around the corner, the indicator light automatically turns off, using more sensors called gyroscopes – the type of sensors that are used onboard spacecraft to provide astronauts with a clear sense of how they are orientated in three-dimensional space.

The turning off mechanism for the indicator lights is achieved by use of a class of sensors called gyroscopes, which are also used in space, to orientate a spacecraft in relation to the Earth.

The original idea for a helmet with indicators actually came from one of Rory’s friends, but his friend’s idea involved wires and buttons, which Rory felt would annoy and turn off potential users of the helmet.

It was Rory that came up with the idea of putting the indicators and lights all inside the helmet, which, he felt, would make it easier and more comfortable for cyclists to use.

Rory clearly impressed the judges with his schematic diagram, detailing how he had connected all the wires, motion sensors, batteries, and buzzers inside the helmet.

He filed a patent on the idea during the work of the BT Show in January last – a process he said was complex and required a lawyer’s assistance.

Certainly, Rory is a credit to his school, and to his teacher, Mr O’Briain. As for where me might see himself in terms of a career he said: “I’d definitely like to get into technology and I love building things, hardware, and then programming them to do things.”

This was first published in the September-October 2011 edition of Science Spin magazine

A Gas Man: John Tyndall

John Tyndall of Leighlinbridge Co Carlow, pictured above, was the first to explain why the sky is blue and to discover ‘greenhouse gases’ in the Earth’s atmosphere (Credit: Wikipedia)

The first researcher to identify the ‘greenhouse effect’, to explain why the sky is blue, and to develop optically pure air – the foreruner of today’s cleanroom technology, which is used in the manufacture of high-tech electronic devices. These are just some of the many reasons why John Tyndall, from Leighlinbridge Co Carlow was certainly one of the most famous 19th century scientists in Britain and Ireland. A multi-talented man, he was also a brilliant science communicator, whose public lectures at the Royal Society in London were legendary, as were his many popular books on scientific topics. When he died in 1893 he died a rich and hugely successful man, leaving behind £22,000, the equivalent of £6 million today.  Not bad for a man born into a humble Protestant family in rural Ireland.

Tyndall’s ancestors were from Gloucestershire and had arrived in the southeast of Ireland in the 17th century. His background was certainly not a privileged one, and his father worked as a police constable. He attended local schools, where he learned subjects such as technical drawing and maths. He worked in Ireland for as a surveyor the Government doing land surveys and mapping, and moved to England in 1842, now in his early twenties and did the same. He benefitted from the railway building boom in the UK in the 1840s, and made a lot of money working for the railway companies, doing surveying work in that decade.

It seems, however, that although he was always adept at making money, money was not his God and he went into teaching in 1847 at an English boarding school in Hampshire. He moved to Germany a year later, to do a PhD under Robert Bunsen, of bunsen burner fame, at the University of Marburg.  He returned to England in 1851 and joined the Royal Society in London one year later. He would remain at the Royal Society all his working life, and became its Director.


The large and well-respected Tyndall National Institute in Cork was named in Tyndall’s honour. The reason the Institute named itself after him that is that he did a lot of research in areas that the Tyndall is interested in today such as the behaviour of light. Tyndall did some of the earliest investigations into the ‘guiding’ of light, and this is essentially what underlies optical fibre technology, which forms the basis for modern communications, particularly the Internet. He also did a lot of work on what would today be called ‘clean room’ technology. His work involved studying things that float in the air, and he developed some of the very earliest ‘optically pure’ air. Today, cleanrooms are used as manufacturing sites for producing advanced semi-conductors and opto-electronic devices.

Science communicator

Tyndall was a great believer in demonstrating things to students or the public in order to explain them. He gave lectures to the public on all kinds of topics, and he proved to be a brilliant natural science communicator and these lectures were very popular and attracted large crowds. This work also made him famous, and ultimately made him rich too.  He succeeded the famous Michael Faraday as  the Director of the Royal Institution and he continued the work of public outreach that Faraday had started. Tyndall was a brilliant 19th century ‘polymath’, meaning he was interested in lots of different things. He belived in getting the message over by actually demonstrating things to the general public. He was profilic, publishing many books, 17 in total, and wrote 145 scientific papers.

Personal life

He married late, at the age of 55, to a woman 25 years younger. They had no children. He left just over £22,000 pounds in his estate when he died in 1893. This was an enormous amount considering that a London police constable was paid about £80 per year at the time. If we do the comparative mathematics that means his estate was worth in the region of £6 million in today’s money.

He was someone who suffered considerable ill health. He slept badly, suffered from migranes and took ‘sleeping draughts’ to help him to sleep. These draughts were tonics used in the 19th century that people drank before bed to help them get to sleep. The draughts were administered to Tyndall by his wife, and

they proved to be Tyndall’s undoing as he died from an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate when his wife got some bottles mixed up. The woman was distraught, and no blame was attached to her at the subsequent inquest.

Aside from science, the other great passion in Tyndalls’ life was mountain climbing and each summer form 1856 onwards, he visited the Alps. He was the first to reach the top of the Weisshorn in 1861 and he climbed the Matterhorn in 1868, three years after the first ascent. He had caught the mountain climbing bug when visiting the Alps for scientific reasons. Today he has a glacier in Chile named after him as well as a mountain in California and another in Tasmania.


There were a number of things Tyndall did which were ‘firsts’. He was the first to analyse the trace gases in the atmosphere by employing a technique that would later become infrared spectroscopy.  He used the technique to discover that there were traces of carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere. He concluded, showing brilliant insight, that they way that carbon dioxide and water vapour absorbed infrared radiation meant that they were keeping the Earth warm. He went further, and said without these two elements, life couldn’t exist on Earth.

He was the first scientist to attempt to describe precisely why the sky is blue. The simple version of his explanation is that it was all to do with the scattering of light. This was later replicated by Lord Raleigh, but Tyndall was the first to do it. He had many battles with creationists, who considered that life had arose spontaneously out of nothing. He showed that it was not possible for life to spring to life spontaneously through a simple experiment. He made a box very clean and took all the dirt out of the air, and waited. No life forms spontaneously arose.

Certainly, Tyndall is one of Ireland’s greatest ever scientists, and his influence over many areas, including science communication, remains strong to this day.

First published in the September-October 2011 edition of Science Spin

How Irish Scientists Changed the World, by Seán Duke, is due for publication by Londubh Books in 2012.

The Pulsar Superstar – Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Listen below to the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell as part of the Irish Scientists series which was broadcast on East Coast FM in December 2016

Jocelyn BB Pic

Jocelyn Bell Burnell from Lurgan Co. Armagh discovered a new type of star, called pulsars in the 1960s

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pictured on the right, who grew up and was educated in Lurgan, discovered pulsars, a new family of incredibly compact tiny stars back in 1968. It was a discovery that many astronomers believed merited a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee agreed and a Prize was duly awarded for the discovery in 1974. The problem was the Prize went not to Jocelyn, but to her supervisor.

At the time she made the discovery, 67-year-old Jocelyn (who is still an active researcher) was a 24-year old post-graduate student. She was also a woman. Those things still mattered in science in the 1960s, and might have helped explain why the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded for the pulsar discovery, went to Jocelyn’s male supervisor, Antony Hewish and his senior colleague Martin Ryle. Many astronomers are still unhappy about this decision and have openly suggested that Jocelyn should, at the very least, been a co-recipient of the Prize. That the two prize winners never felt the need to recognise Jocelyn’s work, is a scientific scandal.


It was far from certain that Jocelyn would attain the heights she has attained in science, and she had to overcome many obstacles in her path. She was born inBelfast, but spent most of her first 13 years in Lurgan. She failed the ’11 plus’ exam, the test that children take inBritainandNorthern Irelandbefore entering secondary school. This exam is crucial as it usually determines whether a child is admitted to a ‘grammar school’ where the focus is on getting students to university. Her failure at the 11 plus wasn’t fatal, as she had been attending the Grammar School in Lurgan, and the school agreed to keep her on for a few years before she went off to a boarding school inEngland. However, she did admit much later that the failure ‘shook her’, and she didn’t chose to mention it until she attained the status of Professor.

Looking back today, Jocelyn believes that the 11 plus curriculum at the time didn’t suit her, as she said there wasn’t any science in it. Her scientific ability was certainly obvious when she came top of her class in her first term in secondary school at Lurgan Grammar. However, before that, there was another hurdle to cross. That came when the girls and boys were segregated into two groups in her first year of secondary school. Jocelyn thought that the separation might have ‘something to do with sport’, but was horrified when she realised that the boys were being brought to the science lab, while the girls were being packed off to learn about domestic science. It was the1950s and girls in Lurgan, and all overIreland, north and south, weren’t given any encouragement to do science. Jocelyn’s parents decided to ‘kick up a fuss’ and, as a result she was permitted to join the boys doing science, along with the daughter of a local doctor, and one other girl. It was a close call, andIrelandalmost lost perhaps its most accomplished ever female scientist before she even had a chance to show what she could do.

She finished out her two remaining years in Lurgan Grammar and then it was off toEngland. Jocelyn’s family were Quakers, and there was a family tradition of sending the children to Quaker schools inEngland. Jocelyn attendedMountSchool, inYork. She recalls that it was good to get away from home, though traumatic to begin with. In England, in the Fifties, girls were not discouraged from doing science, so it was a different atmosphere to Ireland. Jocelyn did very well in her studies, despite what she recalls as a mixed standard of science teaching.

She made it through the roller-coaster of her primary and secondary school education to get accepted into Glasgow University to study science. There she did well enough to be accepted to do a PhD in the University of Cambridge, a truly world-class university, choc-a-block with Nobel prize winning scientists, then and now. She began her PhD in 1965, working under the supervision of the aforementioned Hewish. The aim of the research project she was involved with was to find quasars. Jocelyn describes quasars as being “big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot of radio waves”. The idea was to search for quasars by looking at natural sources of radio waves in the cosmos using a telescope array.

An array is a group of linked telescopes, and a special array was constructed for the project at a four-acre site at the Mullard Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge. Jocelyn got stuck into the nitty-gritty of getting the project up and running, and spent her time initially banging stakes into the ground and connecting miles of copper wire. Finally, in July 1967, the array was ready.


Jocelyn began the job of monitoring the sky for rapid fluctuations in radio waves that might indicate the presence of a quasar at a particular location. She had to read through literally miles of paper, and wade through mountains of data, searching for tell-tale signs of a quasar.

On the 6th August 1967, a few weeks after the array came online, Jocelyn noticed something. She described the discovery that would change her life to this reporter in an interview in 2010:

“It was totally accidental. I was doing the research project I had been set very conscientiously and happened across something unexpected. The analogy I use is imagine you are at some nice viewpoint making a video of the sunset and along comes another car and parks in the foreground and it’s got its hazard warning lights, its blinkers on, and it spoils your video. Well my project was looking at quasars, which are some of the most distant things in the universe. [quasars] are big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot

of radio waves, which is what I was picking up. [I was] studying these distant quasars and something in the foreground sort of went ‘yo-hoo’! – not very loudly shall we say it was a pretty faint signal, but it turned out after a lot of checking up, and a lot of persistence to be an incredible kind of new star, which we have called a pulsar – pulsating radio star.”

“They are tiny as stars go, they are only about 10 miles across, but they weigh the same as a typical star so they are very, very compact. The radio waves were coming naturally from some kind of star. We picked up these pulses and they were so unexpected that the first thing you have to do is suspect is that there is something wrong with the equipment, then suspect there is interference and then suspect something else, gradually force yourself to believe that it is something astronomical and it’s out there in the galaxy. The excitement came when I found the second one, because that really then begins to look like this is a new population we’ve discovered and we’ve just got the tip of the iceberg.”

Inside a few weeks Jocelyn had discovered three more radio wave sources that were behaving in the same way. This proved beyond doubt that here was a new, real and probably entirely natural phenomenon, though there was some talk – only partly in jest – about the possibility that these pulsating radio waves were being sent across the Universe by an alien intelligence.

A paper in Nature, the renowned scientific journal followed and it was published on the 24th February 1968. The press interest was huge after the paper came out, and Jocelyn and other people in the lab did a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Somehow she managed to get back to finishing her PhD, which she did in September 1968. But her life had changed, and she had become an overnight scientific celebrity, still only in her mid twenties.

Jocelyn said that the practical importance of her new found fame was that she never found it difficult to pick up a job when she was travelling around Britain with her husband, Martin Bell. He was a civil servant that regularly moved from city to city. Jocelyn followed him and worked part time for many years raising their son Gavin, who was born in 1973, and is also a physicist.

The down-side of achieving fame and success at an early stage was – as Jocelyn said to this reporter – that people expected her to come up with amazing discoveries all the time. A discovery such as finding pulsars comes only about once per decade in the astronomical community as a whole, and so it is a bit hard, she suggested, to live up to such expectations.

These days she continues to work as a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University where she is free to conduct research without too many other duties being imposed on her. Whatever she might do before she retires, her scientific legacy is secure. In 2010, a pulsar conference was held in Sardinia to honour her 45 years in science and to ‘christen’ a new radio telescope. A long-time colleague Australian pulsar researcher, Dick Manchester, was asked to deliver a speech at the conference, detailing Jocelyn’s contribution to science.

He said:

“I think Jocelyn’s fame is greater because she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize in 1974 than it would have been if she had. I believe that the furore that her lack of recognition caused resulted in a change of attitude by the Nobel Committee and I’m sure more widely as well, with a heightened awareness of the role of students in projects and the role of women in science.”

First published in the July-August edition of Science Spin

How Irish Scientists Changed the World, by Seán Duke, is due for publication by Londubh Books in 2012.

The Volcanologist

Studying maths and maths physics as an undergraduate at UCD led Chris Bean into exciting and unexplored directions, such as finding himself atop a volcano in Costa Rica, being interviewed by a TV crew, as he ‘listened in’ to a volcano.

Neither of Chris’s parents were scientists, and rather there was a strong interest in classical music in the house. He did a lot of music as a boy, and for a time he might have thought that his ultimate destiny was to be a classical musician. The boarding school he went to for a time specialised in music, but, he changed schools after the Junior Certificate when he realised that he was not going to follow a career in music.

UCD Volcanologist, pictured here, at work ‘in the field’ in Tenerife, with a volcanic crater in the background (Credit: Chris Bean)

The first time Chris recalls being interested in science was as a young boy, watching the historic 1969 moon landings. His father got him out of bed to watch the events unfold on what he remembers as a very speckly black and white TV. He was totally captivated – hooked – and he followed all the other Apollo missions in detail.

The interest in science continued from there, and by the time he was in 6th year in school he had begun to develop an interest in the Earth and its natural processes. That interest was triggered at that time  by visits to the geology museum at TCD.

A  friend of Chris’s was interested in physical geography – the study of the Earth’s natural features – and his friend’s brother was studying physics in TCD. “We used to go down there to hang out after school in 6th year to play snooker, sometimes popping into the geology department for a look around,” recalls Chris. “Yes, officially we probably shouldn’t have been there! but nobody ever tried to stop us.”


At primary school there wasn’t much science taught, he recalls. This was before there was a proper science curriculum at primary level. There were nature studies, but even that was “on the light side”. He remembers being interested in the physical aspect of geography, learning about rivers and so on, but it’s a bit hazy, he says. Primary school students today have a more interesting programme he believes.

Nevertheless, by the time he entered second level his interest in science was gaining strength, and after completing the Junior Cert he decided to take physics for the Leaving Certificate. He went to two different secondary schools, St Finian’s in Mullingar, a school renowned for music, but that also had good science labs, and later to Synge Street in Dublin’s south inner city – a school with a great reputation for science and has produced several winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition over the years.


After leaving school he decided to go to UCD to study science and his chosen subjects in his first year were physics,  maths and maths physics. There was no clear career path in his mind at this point, he just ‘followed his nose’ and did what he was interested in doing.

He loved the college experience, and enjoyed it much more than school. There was much more freedom, and it was much more open, he says, in terms of the learning experience. It required taking control of things for yourself, but that’s a good thing, he says, and college is a fantastic experience for students that “fully engage” with it.

By now, he found himself watching Earth Science documentaries on television and he realised he was interested in using maths as a way to study how the Earth’s natural processes, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, work. He started down this road by doing an M.Sc. in Applied Geophysics at NUI Galway. Next he did a PhD at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and he  spent a lot of time in Karlsruhe University in Germany as part of that. This was a really exciting time for Chris, doing research and travelling the world to present his finding at various conferences. Some of the people he met abroad during this time are still among his best friends.


Chris says that he was “pretty lucky” to get a job at UCD immediately after he finished his PhD at the DIAS. Since then he has also had several visiting positions in France, Spain and the US. One of the great things, of course, about being a scientist – up to now at least! – has been that it offers the chance to work and live abroad, meet new people and learn about different cultures and countries, but still then still be able to come back to a job in Ireland afterwards.

In terms of his work, Chris says that he studies several aspects of geophysical science, that is the physics of the Earth in all its aspects. This includes learning about volcanoes, says Chris. Volcanoes are interesting, he says because we don’t know how they work. The goal is to figure out how volcanoes actually work, which is not to be confused, he says, with describing how they seem to be working.

The volcano work involves going to exciting places and collecting data on volcanoes. It also involves lots of computer simulations of volcano processes. Chris and his colleagues develop new models and write their own software to apply these models.

The work on volcanoes is interesting, but it can also be dangerous, even fatal. Some of Chris’s colleagues were killed in the 1993 eruption on Galeras, Columbia, but he says, such deaths are very unusual. He doesn’t worry too much about the dangers, but neither is he reckless. He cancelled a field experiment due to take place on a volcano in Costa Rica last year, as he was not happy about the safety arrangements.

He also likes to make the point that there is more to geophysics than studying hazards such as volcanoes and earthquakes. There are aspects that are important to civil engineering and building projects, mineral exploration, petroleum exploration, and, increasingly, in the renewable energy area.


Science is exciting, and fun, but like most things it requires dedication adn there is no quick or easy route to success. For someone that is very interested in science, then a career in science can be very rewarding, says Chris.

“The best thing is that fundamentally you are searching for ‘the truth’, for how things work and fit together,” says Chris.

“If you are doing your job properly you will be open to changing your ideas as new evidence requires and you certainly will not toe the partly line, instead you will think independently. The worst thing is that it is hard to switch off. When you walk out of the office your job often walks with you with stuff swirling around in your head.”

In terms of monetary rewards, he says that scientists might have been exploited somewhat in the past because they were so committed to their jobs.

This meant that they didn’t have to be incentivised financially, as a lot of them were driven first and foremost to discover new knowledge.

The upside of this, he says, is that science must therefore be a career with very high levels of job satisfaction, as people are not going into it for purely financial reward.

This situation might be changing, said Chris, and the future looks bright for science.

The best advice he would give is to for students to do what they love best.

“Do law or medicine of you are really interested in law or medicine,” he says. “If you are interested in science and creative new discoveries, do science and it can lead you so some very strange and interesting places.”

“When I was an undergraduate, I never realistically thought that I would be hiking up volcanoes in Costa Rica and getting paid to do it.”

This article was first published in the May-June ed. of Science Spin